Ex-Players, NFLPA Union Battling Over Pensions

By Ira Kaufman
Updated: June 20, 2007

National Football League TAMPA — As a Hall of Fame cornerback for Vince Lombardi’s Packers, Herb Adderley earned accolades covering the best wide receivers in the National Football League.

40 years later, he can’t cover his bills. America’s most popular sport finds itself facing a daily blitz of accusations by Adderley and other retired players clamoring for better benefits from a union portrayed as insensitive to their needs.

NFL Players Association head Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame guard who broke in with the 1967 Oakland Raiders, has been demonized as a bought-off executive who has turned his tailored suit on retirees grappling with shabby pensions and an array of medical issues linked to the violent nature of pro football.

‘Upshaw has earned every bit of it,’ said ex-Browns defensive back Bernie Parrish, who has joined Adderley in filing a lawsuit alleging Players Inc., the NFLPA’s licensing and marketing arm, has inadequately represented former players.

‘How bad are things? If our pensions were on an equal basis with baseball’s plan, we wouldn’t be in this dire situation. We’re after the truth, we’re after justice, and we’re going to get it.’

Upshaw, the NFLPA’s executive director since 1983, has been on the defensive since a group of Hall of Fame players announced the creation of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund (GGAF) during Super Bowl week in Miami. Founded by ex-Packers guard Jerry Kramer, the fund provides financial assistance to retired players requiring immediate financial and medical help.

‘My teammates are having some very difficult times,’ said Kramer, who draws a $358 monthly pension. ‘We have a lot of guys struggling.’

Two members of the GGAF Board of Directors, Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and Joe DeLamielleure, have been among Upshaw’s harshest critics.

‘These guys are proud, they don’t want to beg,’ Ditka said. ‘The money’s there. We can eliminate this problem. The year is 2007 – it’s time to right a wrong. It could have been remedied a long time ago. It can be remedied now.’

Kramer said Adderley, whose monthly pension recently was bumped up $50 to $176.85, stopped attending Green Bay team events four years ago. Adderley said he no longer wears his two Super Bowl rings or his Hall of Fame ring.

‘Our pensions suck,’ DeLamielleure said. ‘I think former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Upshaw are responsible. Guys need help yesterday.’

Upshaw Defends Union’s Record

While NFL pensions and medical benefits for old-time players pale in comparison to Major League Baseball’s plan, Upshaw said he’s proud of the union’s record.

‘We do what we can do,’ he said. ‘We will continue to do what we must do, and we have not turned our back on anyone.’

Kevin Carter, a veteran defensive lineman signed by Tampa Bay as a free agent in March, said Upshaw has nothing to be ashamed about.

‘I happen to be a little biased because I’m an NFLPA executive committee member,’ Carter said. ‘After seeing all the innovations we’ve been making, all the retroactive changes we’ve made, the way we’ve gone back and helped all the players in the past, it’s never been better to be an NFL player today.

‘Mike Ditka talks about how bad of a job Gene Upshaw is doing. I know the facts. I know how many older players we’ve reached back and helped. And I know a lot of those people that Ditka is talking about that we’ve supposedly done wrong. These are people who chose to take their pension early and didn’t wait. There are so many things and circumstances that people don’t know. You really can’t please everyone.’

Some former players accuse Upshaw of forging a cozy relationship with NFL management, compromising any quest for better benefits.

‘I don’t think there’s anybody that I know of that’s done more for retired players or players in general than Gene Upshaw,’ said Tagliabue’s successor, Roger Goodell. ‘The retired players are important to us. They helped us build the game.’

Former defensive end Council Rudolph, a member of the original 1976 Buccaneers, said he has seen too many of his contemporaries grappling with financial and medical issues.

Rudolph, 57, is involved with a check-cashing business in Tampa and said he plans to wait five more years before tapping into his pension. He said his current annual payout would be approximately $14,000.

‘For our group of guys in the No. 1 sport, there’s been no trickle-down effect, only a trickle,’ said Rudolph, whose top salary was $55,000 in the pre-free agency era. ‘Some of our guys are getting $200 a month while retired baseball players are getting $40,000 a year.

‘That’s a big gap. Gene Upshaw’s doing a great job for the guys playing now, but we need somebody to speak up for the retired players. Upshaw has already said he doesn’t work for us.’

Can’t Make Everyone Happy

Former Bucs punter Mark Royals, who served as an NFL player rep for 12 years, defended the union’s commitment to past constituents.

‘Regardless of what you do,’ Royals said, ‘it’s impossible to make everyone happy. I don’t think Gene Upshaw is unsympathetic. If we hadn’t gone back in to improve benefits for old-time players, my future pension would be three times higher. You know how rare that is for a union to go back in and improve pensions? It never happens.’

In 2002, the NFLPA doubled pension benefits for players who competed before 1968 from $100 to $200 per month for each credited season. For some, it was a token gesture.

‘The NFL is a billion-dollar industry, and yet the players who built the league are too often left to fend for themselves,’ said Congresswoman Linda T. Sanchez, D-Calif., who will chair a June 26 House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing to assess the adequacy of retiree benefits for disabled NFL players.

Adding to the complexity of the issue is the short average career (four years) of NFL players and subsequent health problems that often don’t manifest themselves until well after retirement.

The NFLPA recently instituted an ’88 Plan,’ designed to help with the care of former players afflicted with dementia or related mental problems. The plan is named in honor of Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Meanwhile, Ditka and DeLamielleure are keeping the pressure squarely on Upshaw.

During a news conference last week in his Chicago restaurant, Ditka introduced 35-year-old Brian DeMarco, a former Jacksonville offensive lineman who denounced the union for disregarding his requests for medical help.

The NFLPA quickly produced a series of canceled checks reflecting $10,000 in recent contributions to DeMarco.

Contentious Line Clearly Drawn

The rhetoric may get even uglier before the 2007 Pro Football Hall of Fame class is inducted Aug. 4 in Canton, Ohio, where some prominent former players may attempt to disrupt the ceremonies with a protest aimed at highlighting pension issues.

‘I get upset when people say I don’t respect the older players,’ Upshaw said last week in a radio interview with former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson. ‘You do not get the right to hit me in the nose every time and I’m supposed to turn the other cheek. I’m supposed to take it? I won’t do it.’

Although Upshaw said his recent threat to break DeLamielleure’s neck shouldn’t be taken seriously, a contentious line of scrimmage is clearly drawn.

‘We’ll give them some credit,’ Rudolph said of union efforts to bolster pensions. ‘They gave us a drop, but we were so far back, they had to give us something. Representation is not going to be accomplished easily. We’re gonna have to fight and somebody’s going to be stepped on. I’m sorry, Gene, but we’re hurting.’

Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, an accomplished NFL cornerback who retired in 1986, argues there’s enough money in his $7 billion industry to heal all wounds.

‘These guys are the foundation,’ Edwards said at the league meetings in March. ‘You’re part of this league, you shouldn’t be forgotten. If they need some help, give ’em some help. Do the right thing. We talk about all the charity work we do – how about helping our own? We should give them anything they want. And guess what? They shouldn’t have to ask.’